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Staff tutor focus group: tutorial observations

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Oct 2018, 10:27

On 7 November 2017, I facilitated a number of focus groups for STEM staff tutors to elicit views about tutorial observations. During this session, I asked the following open questions:  (1) What is the most important reason to carry out an observation? (2) What procedure or procedures do you follow? (3) How do you record an observation? (4) What do you look for? (5) How do you share feedback? (6) Is there anything special about online observations? And (7) Should there be standardised guidelines for STEM?

This blog has taken quite a bit of time to prepare, since I’ve been involved in all kinds of other things, most notably, trying to get everything sorted for the October starts. It seems that November is a month when I can start to do other things.

In some respects, this post is a sister post to the one that I made about some tutor focus groups, that had the title: Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

During this session, each group was asked to make notes about the discussions that took place, and to summarise some of the key themes in a plenary session. What follows is a summary of some of the themes that were discussed in each of the groups, followed by a brief summary of the plenary discussion.

Since a number of discussion points were common between different groups, I have chosen to highlight sections from each group that appear to be the most significant.

Group 1

Group 1 began with the first question: why is it important to carry out observations? Observations can be linked to and connected with staff development; it can facilitate a two way process that is also linked to quality assurance. It also represents an opportunity to get to know associate lecturers. There are other reasons too, which is: staff tutors can get a feel for what is happening ‘on the ground’ and understand how distance learning materials are being used and interpreted by students and whether the tutorial strategy (which is sometimes designed by a staff tutor) is working as planned. Also, observations can help facilitate discussions during a tutor’s appraisal.

Group 2

Group 2 gave a very notable answer to question 4, what to look for: the answer will depend on the level of study, i.e. whether they had recently started at the university, or were coming to the end of their studies. For introductory level (level 1) students, staff tutors would look for: encouragement, enthusiasm, positivity, bounce, involvement, thank students for attending, and whether they were motivating. For final equivalent (level 3) students, staff tutors would look for expertise and subject knowledge, competence, confidence, ability to respond to questions encouragingly and supportively, using the question well, understand where the students ‘are’ and the range of abilities, and how to address any gaps of understanding between where student is and where a student needs to be.

Group 3

Regarding the question of procedure or procedures, group 3 mentioned that observations could relate to an associate lecturers probation period (which lasts for two years), but an observation need not necessarily take place in the first year. A related reflection is that the idea of a ‘one off visit’ to provide support or to ensure that teaching quality may be okay could now be outdated due to online tuition; it is now possible to look at a ‘bigger’ picture (and more points of interactivity).

Group 4

This group gave some reflections about online tutorials, stating that a staff tutor or line manager watching the recording can also be considered as a form of online observation. It was also reflected that online observations does offer unique challenges, in that it is very difficult to observe the effectiveness of online group work. In terms of feedback to tutors, it shouldn’t be in the form of a formal report, but there could be verbal feedback which is then supplemented by written feedback.

Group 5

Group 5 emphasised procedures. A memorable suggestion was: don’t visit the first tutorial for a new associate lecturer. Also, ask tutors which tutorial they would like their line manager to visit so they can showcase a session that they might have been particularly proud of, and also include a visit to the tutor’s tutor group forum to gain a complete picture of their online teaching. Gather observation feedback using a form and if the tutorial is good, send the form to the tutor and give the tutor a copy of the feedback form in advance, so they know what they staff tutor is going to be looking for. If there is a need for development, have a discussion with the tutor. 

Group 6

Group 6 referenced the use of peer observation, which could be used in situations where staff tutors might not have sufficient time to carry out their own observations. There were differences in terms of how tuition observations were recorded: 2 line managers used a proforma with space for qualitative feedback, 3 line managers write notes and then write a summary, and 2 line managers use of a loose proforma to provide semi-structured notes. 

Group 7

Following on from the discussion about recording observations, group 7 noted that the former Faculty of Science used a form. A form should also help to emphasise what went well (within a tutorial), what not so well, and what might be potentially improved. Like the previous group, peer observations was also referenced, in the sense that tutors could present to other tutors. 

Group 8

This final group raised many of the points were highlighted earlier, but placed particular emphasis on online tutorials. Some key points that line managers would look for included: whether or not tutors were prepared, whether they were clear vocally and had a relaxed attitude, whether they encouraged interaction from students and designed interactions. After an observation, members of this group would have an informal chat with a tutor which would be followed by an informal letter. The tone of this correspondence is important: suggestions rather than instructions for improvements would be offered. 

Plenary discussion

Towards the end of the session, there was a facilitated discussion to draw out key discussion points from each of the groups. What follows is a brief summary of the main points, any commonalities between the groups and implications for practice.

An early comment was that observations are important not only in terms of quality, but they also help to develop the line manager’s relationship with the tutor. A useful perspective was that a line manager’s view of tuition of teaching should not begin or end with an observation. Instead, an observation should contribute to a holistic view of tuition practice. One participant made reference to the concept of a ‘learning walk’. 

There were also messages that were common between the groups. In terms of practice, the importance of an informal conversation with the tutor after an observation was emphasised, followed by a letter or an email. There was also the view that there should not be a ‘ticklist’ or standard form that staff tutors should apply to complete observations. Instead, there should be guidelines rather than mandated procedures, to offer flexibility. 

Regarding online tutorials, tutor managers should look for interactivity. Since observations can also be through recordings, it was also noted that the choice of the recordings could be directed by the tutor. 

A further point acknowledged the challenge of online teaching. Online teaching using synchronous tools and live environments requires significant skill, knowledge and experience. Reflecting the TPACK model, tutors need to acquire and apply technical, pedagogical and content knowledge, and dynamically respond to the needs of students. Acknowledging these challenges, one tutor manager reported that it important to tell the tutors that it is okay not to present or deliver a session that is ‘technically perfect’, and what really matters is whether student learning is taking place. Put another way, the tutor line managers cannot only have a role in developing practice and teaching quality, they can also have a role in developing tutor and teacher confidence too.

Reflections

One of the tasks that I have to do in my day job is to carry out tutorial visits. I’ve seen a variety of different sessions, ranging from very informal sessions, sessions that are tightly structured around a PowerPoint presentation, and sessions that showed the use of software tools that are taught within an Open University modules. There have also been these occasions when I’ve been left astonished and the skills and abilities of tutors to convey technical concepts in interesting and creative ways.

In my career as a tutor, I’ve also been observed during a tutorial. I think I’ve been observed three times; once during my first year, and another occasion when only a single tutor arrived at a tutorial. My line manager did some of the things that were mentioned by my peers: there was an informal chat, there were suggestions (and not instructions) about how my teaching might be improved, and I was sent a letter that summarised the observation (and also what happened during the tutorials that I facilitated). Importantly, this always felt like a positive process. I really felt that my line manager had taken the time to listen to and respect what I had done.

I’m sure it comes across in this post that I think that tuition observations are important. My own view is that they should be about developing and supporting tutors (and teachers) first, and about institutional and organisation management second. They should also be fun too.

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7th eSTEeM Conference: 25 and 26 April 2018

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 25 May 2018, 09:57

The Open University runs a centre called eSTEeM which funds research and scholarship to enhance and develop STEM education. For the last few years, the centre has run a conference that serves a number of purposes: to showcase research, to create a space to get people talking (and potentially collaborating) with each other, and to offer an opportunity for academic professional development.

What follows is my own personal summary the two days of the conference. There were a number of parallel sessions to choose from. My approach to choose them was very simple: I chose the sessions that packed a lot in. This meant that I chose the paper sessions rather than the various workshop sessions were on offer. At the end of the blog I offer some very short reflections based on my experience of the session.

Opening keynote

The conference was opened by Diane Butler, who introduced the introductory keynote speaker, Tony Bates who used to work at the OU and also the University of British Columbia. Tony has recently written an Open Text Book called Teaching in a Digital Age. I made a note that Tony opened with the observation that there is ‘a lot of change’ and this has direct implications for teaching and learning at the university. One of the key forces of change is the need for skills, i.e. IT skills that are embedded within a subject area; knowing skills that are specific to a discipline. An accompanying question was: what are employers looking for? Certain skills are really important, such as active listening, speaking and critical thinking. 

Learners need to practice and develop skills and to do this they need regular feedback from experts. I made a note about that technology isn’t perhaps the most appropriate way to develop the soft skills that Tony mentioned earlier. An interesting question was posed: what does an advanced course design look like? There were some suggestions (if my notes serve me well): perhaps there might be student generated multimedia content and assessment by e-portfolios.

Tony also spoke about trends: there are new models of delivery; there is face to face teaching on one side, and fully distance learning on the other (and everything in between). An interesting point was that every university in Canada had fully online courses, with 16% of all course enrolment being to online courses and programmes. Traditional universities are moving into the space where distance learning institutions used to dominate.

An interesting new trend was the notion of hybrid learning: looking at what is best done in the classroom and what is best done online. I made a note that Tony said there was ‘no theory about what is done face to face versus online’, which strikes me as surprising.

A significant trend is, of course, MOOCs, but it was reported that there was no MOOC mania in Canada. Other trends included open educational resources and open text books. The point is that we’re now at a point where university professors offer learning support and not content and this has implications for teaching and learning. 

Tony concluded by leaving some points for the university: that technology is continually changing, that there needs to be flexible accreditation for life-long learning, and perhaps there needs to be an agile approach to course (or module) development. Also, all universities will be or are going to be digital (in some way or another). 

Paper session: Supporting students

Lessons in retention success: using video media to influence students

Jessica Bartlett spoke about her experiences working on S282 Astronomy. There are some immediate and obvious challenges: students numbers are falling and the module contains a lot of maths. An interesting point is that 50% of the students studying this module were not from the STEM faculty (which is where all the maths is studied).

The aim of the project was retain more students and help more students to pass exams. The module uses formative tutor marked assessments (TMAs) which means that the module team can reuse questions but can’t (of course) provide model answers to students. I recognised an interesting comment: ‘students don’t often look at their mark, ignoring their feedback’. The module team made videos about how to deconstruct and approach the TMA questions. I made a note of something called ‘reviewing your TMA’ activities, which encourage students to look back at what they’ve done (which sounds like a great idea). There were also weekly videos, where the filming and editing was done by the module team.

Evidence that bootcamps can help student retention and progression

Tom Wilks also spoke about S282 Astronomy but within the context of a ‘bootcamp’ that was designed to offer addition student support. Tom recorded short tutorial sessions that covered a range of topics: basic maths and physics, general OU study skills, how to use the VLE and how to use the Adobe Connect conferencing tool. 28 Adobe Connect sessions were recorded, each lasting between 2 and 10 minutes in length. These sessions were advertised to all students, who could access a forum and an Adobe connect room. Other resources include something called an ‘are you ready for quiz’ which is also used with some computing. Tom commented that tutors can refer students to his recordings if some students were struggling with certain concepts, and he also found that students did re-engage with materials when they were approaching their TMA. 

Flexible/early start M140

Carol Calvert gave a talk on her work on introducing a Flexible or Early start to M140 Introducing Statistics. I’ve heard Carol speak about this subject before, and she always delivers a great talk. Her research is based on an earlier study where she looked at students who succeed despite the odds that are stacked against them. One of the key findings of this research that one thing can really make a difference, and that is: starting early. 

Carol’s intention was to create an ‘early start’ experience that was close to a student’s experience when it officially begins. This means they have access to materials, can access the VLE site, have access to tutors, and can access to resources such screen casts and software. 400 students were sent a message offering them an invite to start early, and 200 responded saying that they would. Tutors offered sessions on study skills and tutorials on content. Another advantage is that if students do start early, they will know sooner whether they are on the wrong module, which can be really useful, since there are significant fee implications if someone finds themselves on the wrong module. If you’re interested, more information about Carole’s scholarship is available on the eSTEeM website

Improving retention amongst marginal students

Anactorial Clarke and Carlton Wood spoke about an access module: Y033 Science Technology and Maths. Access modules are important due to the university’s commitment to widening participation. Y033 is studied by 1K students per year and students who have successfully studied this module (as far as I understand things) can apply for a fee waiver. 25% of students declare a disability and access students are offered 1 to 1 telephone tutorials since previous research has suggested that sympathetic and supportive tutoring is crucial to student success. The study that Anactoria and Carlton introduced use a mixed method. They looked at the completion of S111 Questions in Science and Y033. Students who have taken the access module are more likely to stay with the module; the point being that access level study builds confidence (and emphasises the importance of access).

Paper session: online delivery, tuition and international curriculum

Synchronous online tuition: differences between student and teacher

Lynda Cook and a number of other colleagues asked a really important question: what are online tutorials really like? An accompanying question is: do we meet our student’s expectations? Students on 2nd level modules were surveyed, recorded tutorials were studied, and students and tutors were interviewed. Students reported that very few were using microphones (which isn’t a surprise to anyone who had attended an Adobe Connect session) and an analysis of recorded tutorials suggested that lots of features were not used, with the exception of the chat box.

The interviews with tutors revealed that when the recording button goes on, students are reluctant to talk. One conclusion is that students’ value tutorial recordings but students don’t like to interact. A personal note is that there is a conflict between interactive and recorded lectures and I don’t think the university has quite some way to uncovering the pedagogic opportunities afforded by online tools such as Adobe Connect (and, in some ways, this links back to some of the themes mentioned in Tony’s keynote). 

Understanding tutorial observation practice

It was time for my session. I spoke about a short project that aimed to ask the question: ‘what is the best way to observe tutorials?’ I approached this question by doing three things: carrying out a literature review (with help from a brilliant tutor colleague), and conducting two sets of focus groups: one with tutors, and another with staff tutors (the members of the university who usually carry out tuition observations).

Some of the themes that emerged from the focus groups directly echoed some of the themes in the literature. An important issue is to understand what tuition observations are for: are they for development, or are they for management? (The answer is: they should be used, in the first instance, for development; the observers can learn a lot just by observing). An outcome from the project was to uncover a set of really useful tuition guidelines that have been used and developed by colleagues in Science. The next step in the project is to formally write everything up. 

An international comparative study of tuition models in open and distance learning universities

Ann Walshe, a colleague from the school of Computing and Communications, spoke about her visit to Shanghai Open University (SOU) where she was a part of a group of visiting scholars. Ann reported that SOU emphasises vocational and life-long learning. Whilst it does offer bachelor degrees, it doesn’t offer postgrad qualifications. It was interesting to hear that SOU ‘does its own thing’ and tries not to compete with other local and national universities. It has a particular emphasis on blended learning and face to face teaching, having 41 branch schools for both full time and part time students. Interestingly, students have to attend a mandatory F2F induction.

The visiting scholar group were from a range of different institutions, including Chongqing radio and TV university, University of South Africa, the National Open University of Nigeria, Cavendish University, Zambia, Jose Rizal University, Phillipines, and the Netaji Subhas Open University, India (which apparently has 120 study centres, with more opening). Ann’s talk emphasised the importance of distance learning and its global reach.

Unpacking the STEM students’ experiences and behaviours

Jenna Mittelmeier’s presentation was about the challenges of Online Intercultural group work. I enjoyed Jenna’s talk, since it was a very research focussed talk that asked a very specific question: are students more motivated when they study materials related to their own cultural background? In other words, what are the benefits of matching content and activities to the membership of a multi-cultural group? Jenna described a randomised control trial in the context of a Dutch business school. In an activity, students were asked to look at something called the World Bank statistics dashboard and it was found that students participated more when using content from their own background. A qualitative survey suggested that internationalisation (of a study context) did improve participation but did expose tensions. There was an important point, which is that content needs to be made relevant to student’s lives and experiences.

Paper session: supporting students - STEM practice and engagement

Using a dedicated website in the continuing evolution of a statistics community of learners

Rachel Hilliam and Gaynor Arrowsmith introduced us to something called the Maths and Stats Subject Site. Before the university restructured and closed regional centres, students could attend course choice events where they could look at module materials from the regional centre library and talk to academic support colleagues and speak with other students. In an environment that is increasingly digital, an important question is: can we recreate that in an online environment? I made the note that it is (of course) important that students feel a part of a community.  There is a Maths and Stats advice forum, maths education forum, and information about professional and subject societies. There is also advice about preparing to study, revise and refresh resources, are you ready for quizzes, and early units from some modules.

Implementing additional maths support for Health Science students

Nicola McIntyre, Linda Thomson and Gerry Golding spoke about their experiences on SDK100 Science and health: an evidence based approach. An important aspect of the talk was that a maths tutorial was replaced with 18 short videos covering mathematical concepts, such as decimals, percentages, scientific notation and powers. There were also two workshops which were advertised students by email, and two tutors selected and briefed on format of the workshop. I noted an important point: it’s not enough to only provide videos, the workshops are considered to be an essential component.

Two mathematicians and a ukulele

Hayley Ryder and Toby O’Neil are module team members for M208 Pure Mathematics. The module is run through a single ‘cluster’, which means that there is only one group of tutors who teach on the module, and it has 25 hours of tuition sessions. From what I remember, there was a view that students wanted more contact with module team. 

One way to address this is to record a series of informal online tutorial sessions where Hayley and Toby talk through different mathematical concepts and also discuss what is discussed on the module forum. The idea is to convey a sense of ‘what mathematicians do’ and to build ‘mathematical resilience’, a concept that has a number of aspects: (1) the fostering of a growth mindset, (2) that maths has personal value, (3) knowing how to learn maths, (4) knowing how to find appropriate support. The sessions focussed on the first three of these aspects. 

An important point was that the presenters can easily make mistakes when doing things ‘live’ and this shows that real mathematicians can get stuck, just like everyone else. As for the ukulele, this also connects to the concept of learning; this is an instrument that Toby is learning to play (and I understand that he plays it during sessions!)

A secondary analysis of SEAM responses for programming and non-programming modules by gender

Joseph Osunde from the school of Computing and Communication studies the issue of gender disparity in computing and IT. Joseph offered an important comment during the start of his talk: ‘reasons [for gender disparity] may include learning environment[s] that convey gender stereotypes on interests and anticipated success’. To learn more, Joseph has been looking at university Student Experience on a Module (SEaM) survey results.

As a staff tutor, I regularly get to see SEaM survey results and I have my own views about their usefulness as personal development tools and sources of useful research data. This said, Joseph found that there were no significant differences in achievements between gender for modules that required students to learn about programming and those that didn’t. Joseph (with Anton Dil) looked at M250 Object-oriented Java Programming. It turned out that for modules that contained programming, like M250, men seem to be more satisfied with them. When these were again compared with non-programming modules, the result is a bit more mixed. 

Whilst this is an interesting finding, this does suggest that there is some more research to be done. A related question is: to what extend are different people motivated by modules that contain programming? Also, just as our colleague, Gerry Golding has carried out research (which I mention later on) into ‘mathematics life histories’, I do feel that there might be an opportunity to study something that might be called ‘computing life histories’ to understand the qualitative reasons for differences in satisfaction.

Closing keynote for day 1

The closing keynote by Bart Rientes was entitled a ‘critical discussion of student evaluation scores and academic performance at the OU’. Bart began by telling us that he used to be an economics teacher where his teaching performance was regularly evaluated. Drawing on this experience, he asked a significant question: ‘did my increase in my [evaluation] score mean that I was a better teacher?’  He asked everyone who was attending a similar question: ‘are student evaluations a good proxy for teaching excellence?’ Bart directed us to an article, entitled:  Student satisfaction ‘unrelated’ to academic performance – study  that was featured in the Times Higher.

We were given another reference to some published research that was carried out on behalf of the QAA. Digging into the QAA website later took me to two reports that are both connected to the themes of learning, student satisfaction and quality assurance. The first report, entitled Modelling and Managing Student Satisfaction: Use of Student Feedback to Enhance Learning Experience was by Rienties, Li and Marsh. The second report has the title: The Role of Student Satisfaction Data in Quality Assurance and Enhancement: How Providers Use Data to Improve the Student Experience was by Williams and Mindano.

Onto a personal reflection about this (keynote presentations are, of course, intended to get us thinking!) As mentioned earlier I’m very aware of the OU SEaM surveys. In my experience as a tutor line manager, tutors only tend to receive a couple of responses for a group of twenty students, and the students who do respond often have a particular cause to do so. This observation connects back to Bart’s opening point, which is: what can these measure of performance (or satisfaction) tell us? The fact is that education can be difficult and frustrating, but it can also be transformative. Sometimes we only can truly judge an experience (or feel satisfied with it) when the effects of our experience have become clearer over an extended period of time.

Paper session: Supporting students and technologies for STEM learning 

Using student analytics with ALs to increate retention

Gerry Golding spoke about some of his own research into Maths life histories, an idea that, as far as I remember from Gerry’s talk, originated from a researcher called Cobden. Gerry interviewed people to understand how adults coped when studying advanced maths topics and touched on the importance of high school experiences and maths anxiety. Maths life histories can students help to understand the cause of their anxieties and help them to think about what affected them. In turn, these reflections can be used to build and develop self-efficacy to help them through the hard times and facilitate the development of a growth mindset. In terms of this bit of scholarship, initial contact with students is important. Also, the university virtual learning environment (VLE) is not a big deal, because students are studying using books. I have to confess, that I didn’t pick up on the main outcomes of this bit of research, since I started to think about Gerry’s idea of ‘life histories’.

Analytics for tracking student engagement: TM355 Communications Technology

Allan Jones spoke about TM355 Communications Technology, an important module in the computing and IT undergraduate programme. The module has three 10 point blocks, printed books, 3 TMAs and a final exam. It is also a module that makes extensive use of the VLE. 

Students study what is meant by communication technologies and how they work, such as how you modulate waves and signals, encode data and correct errors. The module also makes use of 30 computer aided learning packages. Data analytics are used to track the use of the online parts and comparisons are made between two presentations and students are interviewed to understand their motivations. 

It’s a bit more complicated than that: STEM OU analyse evaluation

Steve Walker asked a question that was implicitly linked to Allan’s presentation: can learning analytics help students to complete modules? The answer was: no… until something is done with the data. The reason for looking at this subject was both simple and important: retention is important and there is the need to figure out what works, for whom and in what context, and why. 

Steve introduced a term that I had never heard of: realist evaluation, and directed us towards a paper by Pawson and Tilley (PDF) which is (apparently) used in medical education. Points that I noted down that sounded important included: mechanisms, interventions, outcome and context. 7 associate lecturers (ALs) were interviewed by members of a module team using something called ‘intervention interviews’. An observation is that the term ‘analytics’ is used in different ways. I also made a note of a simple model, which has the components: identify, diagnose and intervene.

Java specification checking

Anton Dil spoke about the evaluation of a prototype tool for M250 object-oriented programming tutors. M250 students need to write some object-oriented software code. This includes creating something called ‘classes’. These classes have contain a number of ‘fields’ (or data stores) and are designed to carry out certain actions which are started (or invoked) using something called ‘methods’. Student code can be automatically evaluated in a couple of ways: you could write something called a ‘style checker’ to assess what code a student has written, or you could assess its functionality through using something called unit testing. The module team have written a tool called checkM250 that could be used by tutors.

Eight tutors were surveyed and 6 tutors were interviewed. Tutors didn’t use the tool because they didn’t know about it, didn’t have enough time, or didn’t think they needed it. If they did use it, they were likely to recommend it, but they were unsure whether it could highlight things that were missed. I made note of the quote: ‘if you asked me previously whether I missed things, I would say: of course not’. Tutors did report that it could be useful. My own take on tools for tutors is that any tool may be useful (and I write that in the context of being a tutor!) 

Digital by Design: workshop

The conference workshop was, interestingly, run by a theatre group. The key concept behind the workshop was an observation that the ‘coffee break’ discussions in conferences that can be just as useful as formal presentations. Instead of having further talks, the idea was to create a long session that is, in fact, one long coffee break where participants could move between different discussion groups.

Another important idea is that anyone can propose a topic for discussion. Whenever someone decides on a topic, a delegate chose a post-it note that indicates when the topic is going to be discussed, and where in the large room that discussion is taking place. Participants can see a summary of the topics that are being discussed at any one time and participants are, of course, encouraged to move between different groups, according to their own interests. It was a neat idea.

I proposed a topic: how do we develop and support our associate lecturers to do ‘digital’ in the best possible way?’ Examples of other topics included: how should we be using social media apps to communicate with students and each other, how do we become experts in advising students at how to study onscreen, and how do we decide when digital is appropriate and when is it not?

During our ‘coffee’ conversation, I was joined with two colleagues. I soon began to think about whether there might be something that could be very loosely called the ‘digital associate lecturer capability model’. I sketched out a model that had three levels: university systems and tools (such as Adobe Connect), module tools (such as module specific computer based learning products, like there is in TM355) and common IT systems and products (such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint).

During these discussions, I was reminded of a JISC project called Building digital capability that the OU library was connected to and involved with. This also provided a useful framework that could be used to guide AL development. In later discussions, I discovered that colleagues from the OU library were already using this framework in AL development sessions.

Reflections

Everyone’s experience at a conference is, of course, likely to be different. I had a simple objective when I was attending this eSTEeM conference, which was to attend as many presentations as I could to try to get a feel for the breadth of projects that were happening across the university. In some respects, there was one commonality that jumped out at me, and that was the use of videos or personalised recorded tutors that were customised to the needs of students. Underpinning this is, of course, the use of technology.

During the conference, I heard presentations from module teams and presentation from tutors. I also understand that some students were attending too, but I didn’t get to speak or hear from any of them. This links to an important reflection that it is really important to hear the student voice; we need to hear stories about what has worked and what hasn’t worked. This said, eSTEeM scholars are always asking students questions through surveys and module teams are always looking to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

A final thought is this: I’m still not sure is meant by ‘digital by design’ but I don’t think that really matters. We access materials, write materials, and carry out our scholarship using digital tools. What I think is really important is how we use these digital tools in combination with each other. Digital technologies in their various forms might new and seductive, but ‘digital’ tools cannot be transformative if you can’t see or understand how they might be used. There’s something else that is even more important: what really matters in education is people, not machines. It is people who can show us which digital tools can help our studies.

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Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 25 Oct 2017, 14:02

As a part of an OU funded eSTEeM research project about tuition and tutorial observations, I ran two short focus groups for associate lecturers at an Open University AL development conference which took place in Leeds between 5 and 6 May 2017. 

This blog post represents a set of notes that have been expanded from comments made on flipcharts during the focus groups. Follow on research is to run a focus group with staff tutor colleagues, and then to consolidate all findings by way of internal and external publications about educational practice.

I’m sharing a summary at this early stage, since I feel that it’s important to be open in terms of the research that has been carried out. Plus, through a blog, anyone who has any opinions about the subject or the session should be free to get in contact.

Introducing tutorial observations

A tutorial observation is, as it suggests, an observation of a university learning or teaching event. It can take place either face to face, or online. 

Ever since joining the university I have been aware that different colleagues (within different departments and faculties) have done observations in slightly different ways. One colleague in one school has used a complex form which was a bit like a questionnaire. Another colleague in my school has had a really very simple form to capture a free form description of what happened during a tutorial.

My research question is: what is the best practice that helps associate lecturers? Given that the university has recently completed a faculty merger, this seems like an ideal time to ask this question. 

Accompanying questions are, of course: what are tutorial observations for? An obvious answer is: to ensure that students are given good quality tuition. Although this may be true, a more detailed answer might be a bit more complicate and nuanced.

Introducing the focus group

In order to find out more, my AL support and professional development said that I could run a workshop that gently masqueraded as a focus group. The ‘focus shop’ had the title: Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

The workshop had the accompanying abstract: do you remember when you last observed during a tutorial? If so, what happened, and were you happy with the feedback that you received? This session is all about the concept of a tutorial observations, both on-line and face to face. Chris Douce is leading a research project that aims to learn more about different observation practices, both inside and outside the university. The research project aims to ask two very important questions: (1) what do tutors need? And, (2) how should staff tutors and faculty managers run effective observations? Other questions include: what feedback would help you the most, and do you have any thoughts about how observations should be run when you do team teaching? All welcome and all feedback appreciated; this session can help to develop and (hopefully) enhance tuition observation and develop online and face to face teaching practices.

What follows is a set of notes gathered from both focus groups.

Points captured from the focus groups

Tutors were asking the important question of: what are observations for and what it its purpose? Is it something that is done to monitor the performance of tutors? There was a view that observations shouldn’t be done in a cursory way, or be paying lip service to an administrative process. 

There are a number of different dimensions to observations: they can range from being formal to being very informal. They can also vary in terms of their participants: they can be of an individual, or they can be of a group of tutors. There are further questions: what about recordings? The question about recordings helped us to start to consider other dimensions of observation: in addition to using discussion forums some tutors have, in the past, created their own podcasts, or used tools such as Jing. A suggestion from a tutor was to ask the question: ‘which recordings would you like me to look at?’ and ‘what would you like me to look for?’

There was an awareness that observations have the potential to be negative (or, as noted, be destructive); they can negatively impact on a tutor’s confidence. There was also the point that observations can be used as a way to facilitate a dialogue between a tutor and a tutor manager; after an observation and the receipt of an observation report, tutors may be invited to offer a ‘right to reply’. Another comment was that it should be ‘a two way thing’.

An important question was: how often should observations take place? Opinions about frequency ranged from every two years to every four years, and perhaps be connected with a tutor’s appraisal (which takes place every two years). One tutor reported that they had been observed twice in ten years; another tutor reported they had been observed two times in six months. This raises an accompanying question: now that tutor line management is a lot more complex, who is actually going to carry out an observation? (We now have tuition task managers, lead line managers and cluster managers). 

So, what about the practicalities of carrying out observation? Giving a warning, or notice, was considered to be important. There was also a practice of sending tuition plans to staff tutors in advance of a tutorial so they could see what is planned; some preparatory work needed to be done.

Accompanying the details of the tutorials and the plans, there are other important questions to negotiate; one of those challenges is the extent to which a tutor may wish a staff tutor to be involved in the actual tutorial. Staff tutors might ask the question: ‘what would you like me to do?’ as a way to being negotiation about the extent of involvement. The practicalities of engaging in a tutorial can, of course, depend on the subject and its level.

Feedback was a theme that recurred a number of times. To prepare for an observation, one tutor suggested the use of the question: ‘what would you like me to look at?’ There was also a suggestion that staff tutors should look at only a few things during a tutorial. There was also an emphasis on the importance of expectations. 

A further comment is that feedback should emphasise the good bits, and this is something that could be done immediately after a tutorial. A key phrase I noted down was: ‘how do you phrase things not to be critical?’ An immediate response was to use a ‘feedback sandwich’. 

As expected, the way in which feedback was presented to tutors differed: the school of health and social care used a form, whereas in the school of maths, tutors were sent a letter.

There were a number of other really interesting points that were raised. A question was: perhaps we should ask students what they want? Also, there are opportunities to share examples of practice, activities and reflections. This raises an interesting question about the importance and use of peer observations. This is, of course, connected to the important issue of trust between the observed and the observer. Other points were made about the connection to the importance of correspondence tuition and the role of mentoring.

There was an important acknowledgement that tutorials and tutorial observations can, of course, be stressful and a recognition that personalities play a fundamental role in shaping the teaching environment in which teaching takes place.

Summary

The two focus groups were very different in their composition, but there was a lot of crossover between the themes that emerged: both suggested, for example, the idea of focusing on a selected number of aspects, and there were different experiences in terms of how frequently observations were carried out.

These notes are influenced by one very big factor: myself. I am the researcher, but I am also a tutor, as well as a line manager of tutors. This means that I am the observer as well as being the observed. All this means is that my own views have necessarily affected how I have interpreted and presented the points that have arisen from the two focus groups. This closeness to the subject will, inevitably, cause me to emphasise some points over others.

As mentioned earlier, the next steps in this project is to run a series of focus groups for staff tutors. 

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eSTEeM Annual Conference: April 2017

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On 25 April I had the opportunity of attending a part of the Open University’s eSTEeM annual conference. eSTEeM is a university body that funds scholarship and research into STEM teaching and learning. More information about the projects that eSTEeM funds can be found by visiting the eSTEeM website.

What follows is a short summary of the conference, from my own perspective. I should add that all these views are my own, rather than those of the university. I’m sharing for two reasons (1) in case anyone who was at the conference might find it useful, and (2) I can remember what I’ve done at the end of the year.

Opening keynote

Due to travel connections I missed the opening address, which was given by eSTEeM director, Clem Herman. I did, however, make it in time to hear the opening keynote, which was given by Nicola Turner (blog), who works for HEFCE. 

As Nicola spoke, I made notes of key points that jumped out at me. One of the early notes I made was that 14 thousand teachers are needed. There is also a skills shortage in STEM. Apparently, 1 in 4 jobs relate to a role that is in a skills shortage area. But what skills are needed, and what skills are considered to be important. One answer is this: digital skills (in the loosest possible sense!) are considered to be important: tech, of course, is a fast growing and changing area.

Investment, of course, can benefit different parts of the country. A worrying point was that Nicola said was that there was no northern city that was a net GDP contributor (a disclaimer is that I don’t personally know where this bit of information comes from, or how you might define what ‘northern’ is). London, however, attracted a substantial amount of investment (but this isn’t much of a surprise), but there are ‘digital strengths’ in the regions. Another point I noted was that there is the need for 1.2 million skilled tech workers by 2022, and 93% of tech employers have reported a skills gap in 2016. The key question is: what can be done?

To show that I was really paying attention, some of the most sought after skills contained the keywords: developer, agile and SQL. There are also skills shortages in the area of cloud computing, big data and analytics. An important point is that workers need to be digitally literate, and this is something that links to that old education idea of ‘lifelong learning’.

If there is a skills shortage, an important question to ask is: why is the unemployment rates from computing graduates surprisingly high? This is something that is referenced in the Shadbolt review : Computer science degree accreditation and graduate employability (UK government website). There is also the Wakeham review into employability of STEM graduates (UK government website).

Nicola went onto talk about the Shadbolt review. As she spoke, I noted down a few points: that employment may come from a pool of students from elite universities and that there is low take up of work experience options (I have to confess, that this was offered to me as an undergraduate, and I didn’t take a year out in industry); this leads to a potential lack of soft skills and interpersonal skills. When it comes to computing and IT, the people side is just as important as the technology side.

I noted down some themes regarding employability. Industry is always after ‘work ready graduate’, but there is a contact challenge that industry is always changing (especially the tech industries). But what are the answers? There are things going on: there is the introduction of degree apprenticeships (of which the Open University is playing a part), ‘200 million in STEM teaching capital’, and government strategies.

There is something called the National Cybersecurity Strategy (UK government website), which is linked to degree apprenticeships, a digital skills strategy (UK government website), and an industrial skills strategy. 

The digital skills strategy was defined as a collaboration between employers, educators and government. There was also a reference to the creation of new institutes of technology, and a national college for digital skills (college webite), which is based in London. Interestingly, the focus appears to be at sixth form students. I have to confess to being perplexed. The website says things like: ‘We develop the mindsets, skillsets and character needed to be a pioneer’ and says that students will ‘join a cutting-edge community of digital-thinkers’.

Another point I noted was about something called the Institute of Coding (HEFCE). A key paragraph on the website appears to be the one that reads: ‘The Institute of Coding initiative aims to create and implement solutions that develop and grow digital skills to meet the current and future needs of the industry’.

One thing is very encouraging: the comment that ‘lifelong learning’ is becoming trendy again. A personal reflection, and one that is echoed in the presentation, is that lifelong learning is an idea comes in and goes out of fashion depending on the government. The OU is, of course, good at delivering supported lifelong learning, but much of its provision has been substantially eroded by the increase in fees.

A connected point is that other higher education institutions are investing in distance learning. There is competition within the sector. At the same time, there may be opportunities in terms of ‘new customers’, which has been something that has been touched on in the current OU strategy.

Paper session

I attended one of the short presentation paper sessions, which consisted of four presentations. 

ByALs-ForALs: an online staff development programme in the STEM faculty

This first presentation was by Janet Haresnape, Fiona Aiken and Nirvana Wynn. I made a note of a point that ‘staff development is often us (the university and its representatives) telling people about things, but it should be more about sharing practice’. I totally agree with this. A personal reflection is when I do staff development, I try to get a balance between the two, but I’m sure I don’t always get it right.

The idea is simple: create an environment where ALs can actively share their experience through a programme of online staff development events. If an AL wants to give a presentation or facilitate a session, they submit a proposal. If they are successful, they will be paid for running the session. Tutors can register to attend different sessions by registering using a simple Wiki, and this feeds into an official professional development record.

A total of 500 associate lecturers have been to the various sessions, with attendance varying between 5 and 54, depending on the topic and the time of day. Interestingly, day time appears to be more popular than evening sessions. Every session is recorded, which means that anyone who wasn’t able to attend can benefit.

Following the merger of the Science and MCT faculties, the programme has been extended to all undergraduate and postgraduate ALs in the new STEM faculty (which now consists of over 1500 tutors). I have to confess to not having been to any of these sessions, but I do know of them, and I always put them in my diary! Two questions were: could this approach be rolled out to other faculties, and secondly, would it be possible to do something similar for the school that I work in? Funding may come from the AL professional development and support team. This is certainly something to think about.

Understanding and supporting the career pathway of mathematics and statistics associate lecturers

This presentation was by Rachel Hilliam, Alison Bromley and Carol Calvert, and related to the Maths and Stats submission to Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit website). The presentation was looking at the gender differences between tutors, and asking the questions: do we support tutors in the right way, and what career development is necessary? A mixed method was used: a focus group and a survey.

Some interesting findings between men and women were shared. On average, men had more experience (in terms of tutoring years) than women, and were more likely to have a greater number of tutor contracts.

One area that has interested me for some time is tutor motivation, and this research touches on the reasons why tutors do what they do. Some interesting reasons included: career, challenge and family. A really interesting statistic is that 60% of ALs who responded viewed their AL work as their main job. I also noted down that there was concern about a lack of face to face possibility for staff development.

Success against the odds and the follow through

The presenter for this session was Carol Calvert, from Maths and Stats, but the other contributors to this presentation are: Rachel Hilliam, Linda Brown and Colin Fulford (if I’ve noted this down properly!) The subheading for this talk is: ‘the interesting routes student feedback can open up’.

The interesting aspect of this research is that it adopts the innovate approach of actually speaking to students. To do this, researchers have to find their way through a panel called SRPP, which protects students from being ‘over researched’.

I made a note of top tips and themes that all contributes towards success: the importance of a ‘can do’ attitude, the importance of getting organised, and the need to get ahead. I made a note of another reference: the RSA Animate video entitled How to help every child fulfil their potential (RSA).

Tutorial observations

During the final session I spoke about a project that has been set up to study different approaches to tutorial observations and to ask the important question of what kind of observation or tutorial report would help tutors to develop their teaching practice? At this stage of the project, I don’t have too much to report. So far, a literature review has been completed, and a two focus groups with tutors have been carried out. The next step in the project is to run a focus group for staff tutors (who are, of course, line managers for those tutors).

Workshop: bridge over troubled waters

After taking a bit of time out to attend a module team meeting, I attended an afternoon session that explored the concept of a ‘bridging course’.

A bridging course is a short course that helps student build up their skill and confidence levels before they undertake another module. A bridging course might run between or before modules. An example of a bridging course something called the ‘programming bootcamp’ which helps students to prepare for TU100 (which is to be soon replaced by TM111 and TM112).

The workshop began with a question: ‘would your students benefit from a bridging course to help them transition to the second year?’ There is, apparently, something that is known as a ‘second year slump’. The second year of a degree is where things start to get really serious. To convince us that this was an important issue, Frances Chetwynd presented some evidence, citing research by Douglas and Attewell (American Journal of Education).

So, what things are important, with regard to student progress? Key points include: time management, familiarity with written assessments, unrealistic expectations (which influence drop out), critical thinking skills, and understanding the need to conduct independent research. My notes tell me that Frances also referenced the work of Conley, who has written about college readiness (Education Policy Improvement Centre, PDF). Key points were: cognitive strategies, content knowledge, academic behaviours (which include time management and what it means to be a student), and college knowledge (understanding of how the institution works).

With the scene set, it was time for group discussions. We thought about what our bridging course might contain. An hour isn’t a lot of time. Key points that we chatted about were the importance of tutors and the use of digital materials (and the familiarity of digital materials). A theme that we kept returning to was that of ‘programming’. Another important issue is, of course, study skills.

Closing keynote

The closing keynote, which was entitled ‘is there a role for pedagogy in enhancing the STEM student experience?’ was by Michael Grove, a reader in STEM education. My instinct was to answer this question with a definitive ‘yes’, but to add to this perspective, Michael presented up with a definition of pedagogy from the Oxford English dictionary: pedagogy is ‘the art, occupation or practice of teaching, also the theories or principles of education; a method of teaching on such a theory’.

Underpinning this is definition are the ideas of: preparation, design, development, delivery, evaluation, reflection and dissemination. This helps us to consider other questions: how do you share good practice and encourage wider uptake?

Looking at pedagogy means that we also look at research. An interesting point was made that pedagogy, research and scholarship all blur together, and could all come under the title of ‘education enquiry’. But how does this work? There are approaches that are used, such as case studies, action research, studies that draw on theories and the use of quasi-experimental methods.

I noted an interesting use of terms. To be scholarly means that we inform ourselves, whereas scholarship means that we’re informing a group and using local knowledge. Research, on the other hand, is about disseminating findings to a wider audience. All this is, of course, linked with changes in the HE sector. A particular issue is the development of teaching only contracts, which separates out teaching activity from research activity.

Michael directed us to a document entitled Getting started in pedagogic research within the STEM disciplines (Mathcentre, PDF). It was a document that was mentioned at another presentation, and it looks pretty useful. It contains sections about writing for publication, and list of journals that can be used to disseminate STEM education research. (I also recommend a journal called Open Learning).

In some respects, the original question should have been: ‘is there a role of research in STEM pedagogy?’ I’m instinctively inclined to answer ‘yes’ to this alternative question too. Michael also asks a question about why we should do this. He also offers an answer: it represents an important aspect of our personal academic identify (and also our commitment to our discipline).

Reflections

Although I missed a couple of bits of the conference, I felt the opening and closing speeches worked very well in terms of contextualising the pedagogic research that is done within the university. It is also a reminder that there is a lot to do: not only do academics have to teach (and write module materials), many of them conduct research, and also conduct research into the effectiveness of their teaching strategies and approaches. 

This emphasises that we’re a busy lot: we’re busy reading, writing, thinking and talking pretty much all the time. The event also emphasised how much work is going on, and discussions with others helps us to set our own personal priorities, and learn how we can work with others too.

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Day in the life of a STEM staff tutor (reprised)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 15 Feb 2017, 21:14

This blog post echoes a blog post I made in June 2015. The earlier blog was designed to accompany a presentation that I gave to the Computing and IT student support team, who were then based in Birmingham. Since I gave that talk, things have changed: the Birmingham office is just about to close and the functions have relocated to the Open University Manchester Student Recruitment and Support centre.

This post has a similar aim: to accompany a presentation that I gave to my student support colleagues to given them a feel for what Computing and IT staff tutors do. An important point is that every staff tutor has, of course, slightly different roles and responsibilities. Our exact mix of duties and responsibilities depends on our own expertise and interests. 

Another point is that every day can be very different. Here’s what I wrote last time: ‘the below narrative is a collage of aspects from different days. I’ve written it this way so give a sense of the diversity of things that we do. It’s not representative, since every day is different, but it does give a taste of what kind of things a staff tutor gets involved with’

Blitz the inbox

I wake up at any time between 7.00 and 8.00am; I often watch the travel reports whilst I eat breakfast. Now that I’m a home worker, I do find the travel reports strangely satisfying; I take a life affirming moment to reflect that I’m not in the middle of one of those huge snarl-ups on the north or south circular roads.

One of the first things I do is triage my inbox to decide what is important. The exciting thing about being a staff tutor is that anything could happen. I look after approximately sixty associate lecturer contracts (or tutor groups) across three different levels of study. To give an impression of scale, a tutor might (of course) have anything between 18 and 20 students. 

My key objective is to get to the messages that are important. So, glance through announcements about conferences and drainage issues. I delete messages that offer reminders about events in Milton Keynes, even though I’m not working in Milton Keynes. I shift-delete emails about fire alarms and electrical testing, and start to read messages, dropping updates about new procedures into folders (I don’t read things in depth if I don’t need to).

TM356 tutor telephone call

The first scheduled event was a chat with a TM356 tutor. Our tutor has been raising some really good points about the design of some online sessions; he’s also very experienced too. We shared views about how things are going on the module, and I make a note about some things that I need to bring to the module teams attention.

After our chat, I receive a delivery: it’s my new desk. To make things easier at home I’ve been reconfiguring my study area, and this has meant trying to find a bigger work area. I haul a big new desk into my lounge and start to puzzle about what the next step needs to be: my desk needs varnishing. I make a mental note.

It is a busy morning: I email a tutor about organising an additional support session, and then send off another email, this time to AL services in Manchester about transferring TMAs from one tutor to another due to a tutor being away on sick leave; a few days earlier I had found a tutor who was willing to cover.

AL CDSA

A Microsoft Outlook reminder popped up on my screen: it told me that there was an AL CDSA (appraisal) was due in fifteen minutes. I started to get everything sorted out: I opened up the tutor’s draft CDSA form that he had sent to me and the tutor’s ALAR report in a different screen (I have a two screen setup; my new desk will allow me to have three screens!) I familiarised myself with the contents of the ALAR report: turnaround times were very good, and the student surveys were very good (but like with so many student surveys, not many students had responded; this is always a problem that isn’t easily solved).

I get everything sorted out for the CDSA and give the tutor a call. He was great to talk to; he was committed and dedicated. I asked him what kinds of things I might be able to do to help him in his job, and told him to contact me if he has any suggestions about what AL staff development events might be useful.

Academic work

After a drop of lunch and a bit of TV it was onto the afternoon stint. Now that the key emergencies had been sorted out, it was time to get onto some academic work. For me, the term ‘academic work’ can mean a whole range of different things.

Over the last year and a half (or so, perhaps a bit longer) I have been a deputy editor for a publication called Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning (Routledge).

The journal has an interesting history: it began as an internal OU publication that shared information about ‘the OU approach to teaching and learning’ amongst its many staff. As time has moved on the journal’s remit has broadened, adopting a more international focus. It is still an Open University institutional publication but it is one that is more outward looking. It does, however, maintain its core focus, publishing research about distance education, technology and educational practice. 

I spend about an hour looking through the status of the submissions. I try to match up newly submitted papers to reviewers. One paper has been reviewed, and there is a positive ‘accept’, which is always good news. I read through the reviewer comments and have another quick read of the paper before making a final decision.

When this is done, I get onto editing a PowerPoint presentation for an online tutorial that is scheduled to take place later on in the day. I send a couple of pictures I have taken from my phone to my laptop, open up the PowerPoint, and then drop them in. I then convert the PowerPoint into the native OU Live format, and upload the new file as an OU Live preload, just to make I’m fully prepared.

I receive an email from an associate lecturer colleague that I’m working with. We’re working on a tutorial observation research project that is funded by something called eSTEeM, which is all about Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics education. My colleague has started work on a literature review and it looks brilliant. I look in my diary and I fix a time to have a chat about how things are going.

One of the things I really enjoy doing is AL development. I enjoy it because it’s great speaking to all the tutors. At the start of the month I ran a TM470 AL development session for purely selfish reasons: I am a tutor on TM470 and I wanted to run some tutorials, but I was also very aware that other TM470 tutors are significantly more experienced than I am. Put simply: I wanted to steal some of their good ideas, and a way to do this is to find a way to get tutors talking to each other. To do this, I ran an online staff development event.

After the event had finished, I had to do a couple of ‘wash up’ tasks. The first one was to send AL services in Manchester a list of associate lecturers who had attended. The second was to write a quick blog post about the key findings, and share that post to all tutors. I spent the next couple of hours going through the recording of the event, making notes, and putting everything into a blog summary of the TM470 AL development event (blog)

Evening

I try not to work evenings (or weekends) but sometimes you just can’t avoid it. It was one of those nights.

At the start of TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience, some tutors were worried about an event called the ‘Hackathon’. The OU group tuition policy stipulates that each face-to-face event must have an online alternative. The thing is, the TM356 face-to-face Hackathon takes an entire day, and you can’t have an online equivalent of an event that starts at 10.30 and ends at 16.30; it just wouldn’t be humane!

With a blessing from the module team, I made the executive decision to create three ‘parts’ to a longer running online equivalent. After making this suggestion, I realised that I was going to making a substantial contribution to the pedagogic design of these ‘parts’. 

The tutors were asking, quite rightly: ‘how are these sessions going to work?’ 

I made a decision: showing and demonstrating a teaching idea would be significantly easier than writing a document that tutors would then have to try to decode. I had prepped a session, uploaded a session, and I worked with a tutor to deliver a session.

My fellow tutor had some brilliant ideas; we tried a ‘dialogic approach’ to teaching, which means: ‘we asked each other questions’. Listening to two voices is always, in my opinion, more fun than listening to one.

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Horizons in STEM higher education conference 2016

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This blog has been taken from a set of notes I made when I visited the Horizons in STEM conference at the University of Leicester on 30 June 2016. Attending an event like this, to do ‘something academic’, made me feel weirdly guilty since I had been spending so much of my time doing ‘admin stuff’.

The aim of the conference was all about developing teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines, and sharing practice about what works and what doesn’t. Two speakers gave an opening address: there was the head of STEM from the HEA, and Nick Braithwaite from The Open University. Comments were made about the student voice, commitment to the discipline and the constant importance of professional integrity. I also noted down the words, ‘we want to improve our critical pedagogy; encourage everyone to be critical’. The second keynote speech was especially interesting because it was pretty distant from my know experience and knowledge: it was about how shared laboratory and learning spaces could be used to create an interdisciplinary subject centre.

Day one: first session

The first presentation I attended had the title ‘the educational value of student generated videos’. The idea was to replace a static poster with a five minute videos. As I listened, I thought of the Open University T215 module which requires students to create a short presentation.

One of the presentations that I particularly liked had the title: ‘undergraduate eJournals’. An eJournal is an official university publication for undergraduate studies that was linked to a ten point module. Interestingly, the articles published in an eJournal can be picked up by Google Scholar and the national media. Students could adopt the roles of author, referee and play a role on an editorial board. A new term that I’ve learnt was: synoptic learning. A key point for students was: try to create a paper that links science and fun topics; wacky can be good.

Discussion session

The next session was about discussion. I made notes about issues relating to ‘normative practice’ (without really understanding that this meant), social justice and inclusion.

An interesting question that was posed was: ‘are you aware of attainment gaps [in your programmes and modules]?’ Accompanying questions were: ‘are they discussed in your module team meetings, and do you know why they happen?’ and ‘do you discuss potential solutions?’ There were a series of related points: the importance of transition between levels of study, the importance of data, and the importance of critical reflection. Inclusion was discussed in terms of inclusive curriculum; making a subject relevant to individual students.

Flexibility and Personalisation

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull spoke about two pieces of work: flexible pedagogy and attainment. Flexible pedagogy was defined as giving students more choice about when to learn, where to learn and how to learn (mode, pace and place). Some interesting points that relate to computer science: it is a popular subject, but there appears to be a mismatch between expectations, i.e. computer science does not equal information technology. There are some clear challenges: computer science was noted to be the second worse subject for awarding good degrees (I should add that I’m not sure whether this was a national perspective or an institutional perspective), and 83% of students are male (again, I’m not sure on where this figure was taken from). Are there solutions? Some ideas were: to develop interactive tutorials, to create automated assessment, and look at the transition between school and colleague, and look to community engagement.

The next presentation was by Derek Raine from the University of Leicester. My notes read: ‘personalise the content to match with the aims and objectives for students – usual approach: core, options and a capstone project’.  Other points were: ‘drivers of change include finance, non-standard providers, media, and MOOCs’. The following question could be asked in classes: ‘what would you like to be discussed in the sessions?’

Final session

The final session that I attended was opened by Simon Grey from the University of Hull who spoke about ‘Games, learning and engagement’. Simon presented a brief history of gaming followed by a summary of the concept of gamification and game based learning. I learnt that there were eight different types of fun: sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discover, expression and submission (these terms reminded me of usability and user experience goals that are found in interaction design). Other points include the importance of mechanics (rules), dynamics (the system), and aesthetics (the look and feel), before Simon spoke about the concept of flow, and that we needed to give students clear goals, immediate feedback, and challenges that match their skill.

I think it was then my turn to do a bit of speaking. I spoke about a university funded project to study the teaching of a second level module about web technologies. My key points were that students differed significantly in terms of their backgrounds and abilities, and tutors differed significantly in terms of their online teaching practice.

The next session, entitled ‘teaching programming and data analysis with a MOOC’ was given by my colleague Michel Wermelinger. Michel talked about his experience of teaching on a MOOC entitled ‘learn to code for data analysis’ which has been presented through FutureLearn. Michel mentioned some software that students could use: a Python distribution called Anaconda (Wikipedia), something called SageMathCloud (Wikipedia), and Jupyter notebooks (Jupyter website). We were also told of a blog post that Michel had written called the First Principles of Instruction (blog post). The post which presents a very brief summary of five principles of instructional design that promotes learning and engagement. These are: problem centred, activation (of past experience), demonstration (to show new knowledge), application, and integration (of new knowledge into existing knowledge or practice).

It was a good talk. I have one other memory, which was that Michel was pretty robust in his views about much workload running a MOOC actually entails from a lecturer’s perspective.

Day two: first session

The first session had the title ‘development of digital information literacy’ by Eleanor Crabb who was also from the OU. I noted down the terms ‘understanding digital practices, finding information and critical evaluation’. There was a mention of an online pinboard tool, which was a bit like Pinterest, and a presentation about different activities: an icebreaker activity and a collaborative activity where students had to summarise a chemistry paper.

The next session had the title ‘encouraging students’ reflection through online progress files’. All students were required to make comments every week on each module, which in turn, acquire marks – which is an interesting parallel with a scientist’s notebook.  Key challenges included engagement with students and staff and students knowing what to write (which was ameliorated by a set of more detailed guidelines).

A session that I found especially interesting was entitled ‘maths advice and revision for chemistry’.  A key term that I noted down was: ‘the maths problem’; some students didn’t have mathematics as a prerequisite when they started to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Glasgow University. I also noted down bit of research that one of the best indicators of success in chemistry wasn’t having studied chemistry in the past, but instead, having an existing maths qualification. As I listened I started to think about (and remember) my own experience as a computer science student where I had to attend remedial maths classes (since I didn’t study A-level). I had to attend these classes where we were given maths puzzles printed on yellow paper. In Glasgow University, students could attend voluntary labs, workshops and group tutorials. Subjects included complex numbers, vectors, matrices, differentiation and integration. I couldn’t help but feel that such an approach would have been really useful during my own undergraduate studies.

The final session had the title: ‘understanding the process by which students manage their employability’. Employability was defined as ‘personal assets, how they are deployed, how they are presented to employers, and the wider context (such as economic conditions and personal circumstances). Another thought I had was that employability also relates the information that employers might find easily discover about potential employees if they do a quick internet search (which was a theme I think I was introduced to at another HEA workshop). Much food for thought.

Keynote summary:  Future directions in teaching and learning

The second conference keynote was by Derek Raine (who spoke during an earlier session) from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science from the University of Leicester. Derek mentioned something called the New Directions in the teaching of Physics which presents opinion pieces, pedagogic research and reviews.

Before considering the future, Raine looked to the past to consider the historic and contemporary roles of universities. As well as being centres of study for the sciences and humanities, they can also be considered to be an ‘engine of social mobility, a driver of economic growth, and a cornerstone of our cultural landscape. Points were drawn from the 2016 white paper (THES explanation), and the 1963 Robins Report in Higher Education  (Education England) which states that higher education should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue it (page 9).  

According to Raine (and my notes), the 2016 white paper cites problems: that courses are inflexible, that students are dissatisfied, and there are national skills shortages. An important point is that there is increased competition from different types of education providers which is connected with an important change in perspective. Historically, higher education has been viewed as being a public good (the view that an educated and skilled workforce helps all members of society) whereas it is now being presented as a private good (that an education helps the individual to earn money). My view, and those of others that I work with is that the first perspective needs to be protected.

Another point was that there is research that tells us something about what works in higher education teaching. Key points include: time on task, trained teaching staff, the importance and use of collaborative learning, class sizes, quality of feedback, and the sense of community (Gibbs, Dimensions of Quality, Higher Education Academy PDF).

I made a note of some pedagogies (approaches to teaching) that were mentioned: personalised lecturers (that are based on student questions), flipped classrooms (where students listen to lectures before attending a tutorial), problem-based learning, MOOCs (which I’m very cynical about), gamificiation, extension tasks and student journals. As our speaker was speaking, I made a note that I felt important: ‘an alternative division of labour where pedagogic research or scholarship plays a part’.

Another interesting idea was the importance of sustainability (of higher education, and education per se) as a fundamental idea or principle. I also noted that it is important that ‘history is linked with the present, science linked with society, and economies with social justice, and this is achieved through interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary’. I agree: connections are important since they offer us perspective.

These final thoughts inspired an interesting point during the concluding question and answer session: ‘it isn’t just about what a university is for, but also what is an economy for; it’s not just about money, it’s about culture and our place within it’. 

Final session

The first of three sessions was from three of my OU colleagues, Ann Walshe, Anne-Marie Gallen, and Anne Campbell who were studying ‘associate lecturer perspectives on supporting students through tuition in groups’. They were asking: ‘what is tuition?’, ‘what can we learn from tutors?’ and ‘are there some common understandings across stakeholders?’ The research is being carried out through workshops and telephone interviews.

The next talk had the title ‘a student monitoring and remedial action system for improving retention of computer science programmes’ by Stewart Green from the University of West of England. I noted that there was a role of a retention co-ordinator. This is someone who gets different sources of data, such as attendance data, VLE logins, and assessment results. A key task is to periodically review the data, and to choose actions supported by student support advisors. Interventions might include email messages, face to face chats, and referrals to advisors. Students may, of course, be affected by a whole range of different issues, including illness, family issues and caring responsibilities.

In some ways Stewart’s role represents a human equivalent of various learning analytics project that I have heard rumours about in the OU. I really like the human element that underlies the looking of reports about attendance and attainment; this backs up my opinion that what really matters in education isn’t technology, but people.

I also noted down a couple of useful reports. The first that I noted had the title: Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change by Liz Thomas (HEA website). The second was entitled Undergraduate retention and attainment across the disciplines (HEA website).

The final session was called ‘visualising student progress: identifying patterns in the behaviour of students learning databases’. It was given by Andrew Cumming from Edinburgh Napier. Andrew spoke about tutorial exercises, where students had to perform SQL database searches across a number of live databases. I also have made the note ‘can we tell the difference between formal and informal learners?’ but I have no idea what this means.

Concluding thoughts

By the end of the two days at Leicester, I was pretty tired: there had been loads of presentations, and a lot of take in. Even though several months have now passed since the event, I can still remember some highlights. I was particularly interested in three things: the idea of an official ‘student journal’ as a learning tool (it was an interesting pedagogic approach), the idea of a ‘retention tutor’ (retention is a theme which crops up at almost every meeting I attend), and a welcome dose of perspective given to everyone during the second keynote.

There was one theme that seemed to go through every session: the importance of connecting teaching and research. Even though some of us might work in a discipline that doesn’t change very much (such as mathematics), the context and environment in which a subject or discipline sits is, of course, always changing. This means that we must always think about, study and explore ways to engage our students.

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Open University eSTEeM 2016 conference, 14 April 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 15:57

eSTEeM is the Open University centre for STEM pedagogy. I think this was the second or third eSTEeM conference I’ve been to, and they’ve always been pretty interesting. This blog post is a quick summary of the different talks that I went to. I’m blogging this, so I can remember what happened, and also just in case it might be useful for anyone else who was there.

Opening keynote

Andrew Smith, Senior Lecturer in networking, gave a thought provoking keynote speech entitled ‘our classroom has escaped’. He began by asking everyone who was users of different social media tools: twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Pretty much everyone put up their hands, showing how popular these tools are.

Andrew said ‘we suffer from the paradigm of monolithic learning; what happens in my classroom doesn’t leak out’, and that we are protective of our content.  His point was: things have been ‘escaping’ for some time. As soon as Andrew mentioned this, I thought of the session about Facebook that was held in the most recent associate lecturer development session (OU blog). A question is: how do people outside our classroom see what is going on?

A challenge is that social media exposes us amongst our peers, but it also offers us a way to engage our audience beyond the classroom. But how might we use these tools to teach? One approach is to automate our social media content. For instance, if you know what your content is you can ‘schedule it and plan it’. There is also the potential to engage students when modules are not running, or students are between presentations.

This is all very well, but how do we great engagement? One approach is to ask open questions. The idea is to create a community of practice, where both learners and tutors participate. There is also the importance of relevance. Social media engagement can also connect current studies to current and changing media stories. One of the roles of an educator is to create ‘sparks of interest’, to inspire, and to facilitate learning.

Would the way that you approach social media be different depending upon the subject that you teach? Perhaps. The thing with networking, is that many things are cut and dried; the situation might be very different with subjects from the humanities, for instance.

(In case you’re interested, Andrew told us about two of his Twitter streams: @OUCisco and @OUCyberSec)

Session C: Online practices

There was a lot going on, so I had to choose from one of many different parallel sessions. The first talk in the ‘online practices’ session, by Vic Nicholas, was all about student perceptions of online group work as they studied a ‘classical science module’. One finding (that was, in retrospect, not particularly surprising) was that students appear to have negative views about group work. One thing that I took away from this session was the use of email to prompt students at certain points throughout the module. (This reminded me that tutors have been requesting a ‘send text message to students’ feature for quite a while now).

The next talk took a very different tone: rather than focussing on the students, it was all about how to use technology to empower academic authors. Angela Coe told us about how a tool called OpenEdx (OpenEdx site) was used to create materials for S309 Earth Processes (OU website). OpenEdx was described as a tool that has been created by STEM developers for STEM developers.

Some interesting points were that the tool exposed more about the author and who they are. The use of the tool also encouraged an informal chatty writing style, and supported ‘in content’ discussions. I seem to remember that Angela also spoke about animations and the sharing of data sets using Google Docs. 

The final presentation in this session was entitled, ‘the trials and tribulations of S217’ (which is entitled Physics: from classical to quantum). This is a module that appears to cover some pretty hard (yet fundamental) stuff, such as thermodynamics, optics and quantum physics. An important issue that needed to be addressed in this module was the accessibility of the mathematical materials. I’ve made a note that they authors had to move Tex content to the virtual learning environment (which is a theme that was mentioned in my previous blog about a BCS accessibility conference). 

Session F: MOOCs

The first presentation of this session, entitled ‘Evaluating the design and delivery of a Smart Cities MOOC for an international audience’ was given by Lorraine Hudson from the department of Computing and Communications. The OU is a central partner in an EU funded project that is all about Smart Cities, or how the operation of cities can be supported by the use of different types of IT systems. In some senses the MOOC seems to be about how to tackle ‘wicked problems’ (problems that don’t have an immediately apparent solution). The subject is also necessarily interdisciplinary. 

Michel Wermelinger and Tony Hirst spoke about their experience of designing a MOOC about using the programming language Python for data analysis. In some respects, Michel’s presentation was a ‘warts and all’ take on designing and running a MOOC. The main point that I took away from his presentation was that MOOCs are a lot of hard work for the academics who have to run them, and there is the perpetual question of whether this is time well spent, especially when we bear in mind the fact that around three quarters of the participants already have degrees (which was a point also mentioned in Lorraine’s talk).

The final presentation was by Kris Stutchbury, who spoke about ‘Supporting the teaching of Science in development contexts: OpenScience Lab and TESSA’. TESSA is an abbreviation of Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kris’s project represented a case study, of a snap shot of what is happening within the TESSA project, which can be thought of as an important aspect to the university’s wider social mission. 

Workshop: Listening to graphs

This session was hosted by Chris Hughes and Karen Vines. Their session opened with the observation that graphs are (obviously) a really effective way of communicating a lot numerical data really easily, but how do we communicate the same information for students who have visual impairments?

There are a number of different ways: figure descriptions, the use of tactile diagrams, and the use of sonification, which means converting a visual representation to an audible one. The challenge is, of course, how do we do it? Chris mentioned that sonification has been around for quite a long time; at least one hundred years. One common example of sonification is the Geiger counter, which translates measurements of radiation of audible clicks.

There are a bunch of ‘sound parameters’ that can be manipulated. These are: pitch, timbre, time, loudness and repetition. By way of a simple introduction we were asked to draw a graph based on an equivalent auditory representation. This is all well and good, but there is a compelling research question which needs to be answered, which is: do sonifications actually work during study? Do they help students to learn?

To try to answer this question Chris, Karen and colleagues designed a study. In their study, they gave five visually impaired students and five sighted six learning scenarios: two were from science, one was from mathematics, and the remaining three were from statistics. Of course, since there was such a small sample size, the study was qualitative and (as I interpreted it) exploratory.

The workshop raised some really interesting questions, such as: how do we best teach through figure descriptions? This also emphasised the extent to which existing student knowledge can influence the interpretation of certain descriptions. The final point that I noted was: ‘we need to think of a blended approach, to use different representations; sonifications, descriptions and tactile diagrams’.

Closing Keynote

The closing keynote was by Helen Beetham, and had the title, ‘supporting lifelong learner’s resilience and care in a digital age’.  Helen began with a definition of ‘learning literacies in a digital age’: capabilities that allow an individual to thrive (to live, to learn, to work) in a digital society. There is a JISC funded project called Learning Literacies for the Digital Age (LLiDA) that accompanies this description; an associated project is the JISC Digital Student project (JISC). But what does it mean to be a ‘digital’ student? (If this is a term can ever be defined?) Perhaps it could be able developing effective study habits and specialist practices, using technology to create relationships with peers. 

A connected idea is the notion of ‘digital literacy’. To help us with definitions, there is a JISC information page called Developing students’ Digital Literacy (JISC) that offers a bit of guidance. Another thought is that perhaps ‘the digital divide might be narrower, and deeper’ with respect to how we use digital tools and consume digital learning media. There is also the notion of ‘digital well-being’, and Helen offers a number of digital well-being references (Google Doc). An accompanying idea is ‘digital resilience’.

An interesting point, and one I’ve come across before, is the importance of ‘career and identity management’ (I think I might have come across this term at a HEA event about employability): our different digital identities have the potential to blur, and knowing how we are presented ‘on-line’ is important.

Helen gave us with two other interesting phrases to consider: the notion of our ‘quantified selves’, which points to the question of how much control we have over what data is collected about us, and whether this might connect to our ‘digital capital’.

Reflections

What surprised me about this conference was how much research and scholarship was going on across the university. The poster session was especially memorable. I don’t know how many posters there were, but there were at least twenty, each relating to a different aspect of teaching and learning. Some posters focussed on teaching practice, others focussed on technology.

To get more of a view about what is going on (and what was happening in the other parallel sessions), I really need to find the time to sit down with a cup of tea and work through the conference proceedings.

More information about eSTEeM funded research can also be found by visiting the Open University eSTEeM website (Open University).

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eSTEeM annual conference: TEL in practice

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On 16 April, I went to the first day of the Open University’s eSTEeM conference.  eSTEeM is an Open University initiative to bring ‘together academics in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to promote innovation, scholarship and enterprise in open and distance learning’.  The eSTEeM website offers loads of information about the different projects that are funded through the initiative. Before trying to summarise my ‘take’ on the whole event, I should also add that TEL (which is in the title of the event) is an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning.

Opening keynote

Due to travel timing, I missed the opening address, but I managed to get to the opening keynote, which had the title ‘Using technology in teaching and learning: it is scholarly?’ by Linda Price from the Institute of Educational Technology. My immediate instinct to this question was to say ‘yes’, but the point to Linda’s talk was to encourage us all to think about what scholarship means when it comes to TEL.

An interesting point was that educators and institutions used to be the gatekeepers of knowledge, but technology has enabled some information (and knowledge) to become open.  Two examples of this is with the availability of Open Educational Resources (or OERs), and the increase in the number of open access journals.

Linda’s talk offered us a useful caution, that ‘technology will never save us from poor teaching, it will make things worse’.   Another point was about the importance of learner motivation, and that if technology is not properly integrated into a module then there’s a likelihood that it isn’t to be used (or, used poorly).

Another thought is that technology might not be the problem, but pedagogy might be.  Or, in other words, we need to develop our understanding about how best to use new.  Three important questions are: How do we make choices (of what technology to use)?  What evidence is there? Are we looking at opinion based practice or evidence informed practice?

Connecting to the ‘scholarly’ part of her title, we were told about a number of scholarly principles.  These were: the importance of goals, preparation, methods, results, presentation and critique.  These can also be connected with different scholarly approaches, such as the need to thoroughly analyse a problem, understand the context, review the literature, setting aims and objectives, designing of teaching and learning interventions, evaluation methods, and sharing of findings.

A final point that I have made a note of was that we need to think about how theory can relate to and drive our research.  This left me with a question: which theories are important and relevant?  This, of course, connects back to the importance of being aware of current debates, issues and, of course, the literature that relates to a particular area of research.

Workshop: what do you mean by tuition?

The university is introducing something called the Group Tuition Policy which is to affect both on-line and face to face tuition.  The aim of this workshop (which was one of many different events I could have chosen) was to facilitate discussions about how we might begin to plan and implement the policy (which is something that I’ll have to do as a part of my day job).

The workshop was split into two different activities and related to two different perspectives.  The first was to discuss what is meant by the term tuition, from the tutor’s perspective.  The second activity was all about what students should expect from tuition.  For this second activity we were encouraged to draw a ‘rich picture’.

At the end of each section, we shared different perspectives.  Points that I noted down were, ‘we need to up our game when it comes to on-line [tuition]’, ‘you can’t describe on-line as tutorials’ (which was an interesting perspective), and that there is ‘no difference between watching a recording and being on-line (or, participating in an on-line tutorial)’.  It was obvious there were a number of interesting, slightly conflicting, views.

How students learn in Massive Open Online Courses

The third session that I went to was all about MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.  Allison Littlejohn, from the Centre for Learning and Teaching (and the Institute of Educational Technology) began by asking everyone how many had taught or learnt through a MOOC.  A good number of members of the audience put up their hands.

Allison spoke about a topology of learning.  This included dimensions of formal/informal, intentional/unintentional and recognised/unacknowledged.  She then went onto mention a study at Duke University which analysed 75 different MOOCs in terms of whether they adhered to good instructional design.  If I remember correctly, the results were not very positive.

 A key research question that was asked was: how do students learn in MOOCs?  A related question is: do people who are highly motivated behave differently?  To answer his question, a researcher called Barry Zimmermann was mentioned (with regards to his work on self-directed learning), and three case studies.

The first case study was about a ‘connectivist MOOC’ called SRL-MOOC (Glasgow Caledonian University) (I’m not sure what connectivist in this context means – I think I’ve made a note of the term correctly!)

The second case study was an introduction to the data sciences, and was from the University of Washington.  It ran using the Coursera platform, and had forty thousand learners.  We were introduced to an instrument called SQLMQ which was used to analyse learner behaviour, and could connect with factors such as student motivation.  (There was a lot of detail here that didn’t make a note of since this was all new to me!)

After this second case study there was an opportunity to discuss a question: how would we create a MOOC that could help self-regulated learners?  This was an interesting question that led onto quite a bit of debate, about the business models of MOOCs, how you might engage learners that were not ‘self-regulated’, and worries about their terrible completion rates.

 Allison found something interesting about self-regulated learners.  Low self-regulated learners sometimes engaged with MOOCs with the objective of getting a certificate, whereas high self-regulated learners took a more strategic approach, choosing to carry out learning that relates to a job, role or task.  Simplistically put, some high regulated learners tended to dip in and out of a MOOC, gain what they need, and then move on.

I can relate this finding with my own experience.  I have signed up to three different MOOCs, but I haven’t finished any of them.  The first one was about the history of the internet.  I completed the assessment, but then became a bit grumpy about the comments that were coming back from my ‘peer’.  Plus, I was finding there was a bit more reading to do than I expected (so I dropped out!)  My reasons to take the two other MOOCs were all about ‘checking to see what other institutions were up to’, and finding out whether I was missing anything in my teaching.  I dropped out of the first interaction design MOOC when I realised that the content was solid, and offered me some reassurance that my teaching was ‘on target’ with the overall aims of the discipline.  I dropped out of the final MOOC when I realised that the course was pretty baffling and didn’t seem to be teaching the subject in a very satisfactory way.  This relates, in part, to Allison’s opening comment about the importance of effective learning design.

The third case study was a module about clinical trials, and was hosted in the Edx platform.  I didn’t take any notes of this third case study, since I was probably still thinking about the distinction between ‘high self-directed learners’ and ‘low self-directed learners’.

A final activity of the day was to think about some form of recommendations about either MOOC design, or learning design.  Our table chose, instead, to discuss other issues, including the role and importance of face to face tuition.

Short paper session

The next session contained three short ‘paper’ presentations. 

The first was by Clem Herman, and her presentation was entitled ‘putting gender on the agenda: why gender should be a threshold concept for STEM educators’.  Clem spoke about the university’s involvement with an initiative called Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit).  

Two of the key objectives of the initiative is to ‘address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation’ and ‘to tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation’.  To be recognised by the initiative, institutions have to go through an audit process, enabling the university to gain an understanding of the state of gender representation in individual departments. 

It was interesting (and alarming) to hear that the number of women enrolling in the first level undergraduate computing module has been dropping (in comparison to Maths and Statistics, which was reported as being okay). Postgraduate registrations, apparently, have always been low.

During the question and answer session, questions were asked about engagement with external organisations (which have similar objectives), and there was a discussion about unconscious bias and the ‘stereotype threat’.  I think what is means being aware of gender related expectations when it comes to subject specific performance.

The next presentation of the day was by ‘yours truly’.  I briefly spoke about a university funded project that has been carrying out some research into the tutor experiences of teaching on a second level computing module called TT284 Web Technologies (Open University).  I won’t go into the fine detail, but a description of the project is available on the eSTEeM website, with an accompanying project poster (PDF).

The final talk of the day was from Martin Reynolds, who gave a talk entitled, ‘Designing a learning system for postgraduate recruitment and retention based on systemic enquiry’ (I may or may not have made a proper note of his title).  During his talk I remembered him telling us something about a university LinkedIn ‘systems thinking’ alumni forum, where students are continuing to share knowledge and experience beyond the boundaries of the postgraduate modules that they have been studying.

Closing keynote

 The closing keynote, entitled ‘getting data into your eye: live in the field, life in the lab, and augmented reality’ was by Peter Scott, who was from The Open University Knowledge Media Institute (KMI). 

Peter talked us through a series of EU funded projects that KMI had been involved with; I recognised the name of some projects, but not all, such as WeSpot (EU project website), The Open Science Laboratory (Open University website) and Engaging Science (EU project website) which might have been mentioned into an associate lecturer development event that I went to at the University of Sussex.  Another project was called the Field Network System (Open University website), which was about creating a portable network infrastructure for scientific fieldwork.

A big part of Peter’s talk was about applications of something called ‘augmented reality’; a topic that is featured in a module that I tutor called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design (OU website).  Augmented reality is where digital technologies can add additional information to a digital scene.  An interesting point was made is that AR can become really useful if we use it in combination with people, which leads us to the term ‘socio-technical augmentation’.

An interesting example of this can be found in a project called TellMe (EU project), an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning Living Lab for Manufacturing Environments.  We were shown a demo where a computer tool offered engineers visual guidance about how to assemble and work with components.   Another perspective is that you could potentially be guided by another engineer who is working at a distance.  During these demonstrations I thought about my own interests in teaching computer programming, and wondered about how these tools might be used in this somewhat different context.

Towards the end of his talk, we were shown a demonstration of a virtual volcano (that was spewing lava) that popped out of a text book.  We could only see the ‘virtual volcano’ is we viewed it through the screen of a smartphone, which hinted at the wide variety of different ways that technology can be used when it comes to teaching and learning.

Final thoughts

There was a lot going on during the day, and I felt that I missed out on quite a few things.  I like days like these, since they force you to sit down, listen and learn.  They are also opportunities to help you to understand what is going on, and to gather up gently clues as to how the teaching and learning of science and technology may be changing.  A connected challenge is to try to find the time to investigate what happened in the other sessions and continue to keep up with the various developments that you are introduced to.

During conference I became involved in a couple of conversations about research about introductory programming, and there was even some talk about organising what might become a mini conference.  The bulk of the talk was an objective for a couple of us (who were interested in similar topics) to try to get our heads together; to try to understand more about where the ‘state of the art’ was heading.  In some respects, this was an outcome that was as just as useful as learning about new projects.  The reason for this is that these new connections and discussions have given me a bit of much needed and welcome motivation.

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eSTEeM Conference – Milton Keynes, May 2014

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 20 May 2014, 09:50

On 5 May 2014, I was at Milton Keynes again.  I had something called a module team meeting in the morning.  In the afternoon I attended an OU funded conference that had the title (or abbreviation) eSTEeM (project website).

eSTEeM is an initiative to conduct research into STEM education.  STEM is an abbreviation for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics.  Since I have some connections with some computing modules, which can cross the subjects of Engineering and Mathematics, I decided to submit a proposal that had the objective of learning more about the tutor’s experience of teaching computer programming.  The aim was simple: if we learn more about the tutor’s challenges, we can support them better, and subsequently they will be able to support the students better too.

I have been lucky enough to receive a small amount of funding from the university.  This, of course, is great news, but it also means that I’ve got even more work to do!  (But I’m not complaining - I accept that it’s all self-inflicted, and it’s work that will allow us to get at some insights).  If you’re interested, here’s some further information about the project (eSTEeM website).

A 'pilot' project

The ‘understanding the tutors and the students when they do programming’ project is a qualitative study.  In this case, it means that I’ll be analysing a number of interviews with tutors.  I’ll be the first to admit that it’s been quite a while since I have done any qualitative research, so I felt that I needed to refamiliarise myself with what I needed to do by, perhaps, running a pilot study.

It wasn’t long before I had an idea that could become a substantive piece of research in its own right. I realised that there was an opportunity to run a ‘focus group’ to ask tutors about their experience of tutoring on another module: T320 Ebusiness Technologies (OU website).  The idea was that the outcome from this study could feed directly into discussions about a new module.

During my slot at the conference, rather than talking about my research about programming (which was still at the planning stage), I talked about T320 research, that was just about finished.  I say finished, when what I actually mean is ‘transcribed’; there is a lot more analysis to do.  What has struck me was how generous tutors are with both their opinions and their time.  Their views will really help when it comes to designing and planning the future module that I have a connection.

Final thoughts and links

In case you’re interested, here’s a link to the conference programme.

What struck me was how much ‘internal research’ was there was going on; there are certainly a lot of projects to look through.  From my perspective, I’m certainly looking forward to making a contribution to the next conference and sharing results from the web technologies and programming research project with colleagues.   The other great thing about getting my head into research again is that when you have one idea about what to look at, you suddenly find that get a whole bunch of other ideas.

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